Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jeff Hamelman on maintaining a rye starter

Jeff Hamelman, author of Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes as well as Bakery Director and Certified Master Baker at the King Arthur Flour Company, to whom I had forwarded a reader's question about maintaining a rye starter, was kind enough to send the following information in reply: "We do feed our cultures twice daily at the King Arthur Bakery, seven times per week. Aren’t those cultures lucky to be in a bakery that requires them to be healthy every day? For maintaining cultures when they are not going to be used daily, each person has to decide for him/herself what approach to take. I know people who bake just on weekends who feed their cultures twice daily every day—that’s a level of commitment I don’t think I could take on! On the other extreme, there are people who proudly make bread with a culture that has been refrigerated and utterly neglected for weeks, and claim that their bread is just fine. This is mentally indigestible to me (the bread is probably pretty indigestible too). We must first and fundamentally acknowledge that our culture is a living environment, and like us, will be in best health with regular meals. That said, it’s just not practical to feed a culture 14 times per week if it is only going to be used once or twice a week. In that case, I would give at least four feeds per week, more if possible, and spread them out to fit one’s schedule. For example, one might feed the culture Monday morning before going to work and then refrigerate it in the evening. Then do the same Wednesday and Friday, and then Friday evening make levain for Saturday baking. I’m kind of making this up as I write, but some sort of regimen like that may be suitable. There are, of course, other considerations, such as time of year, ambient temperature and humidity, and so on, so some adjustments may be necessary along the way. What kinds of adjustments? Well, let’s assume we want the culture to ripen in 12 hours. In winter perhaps our build here in Vermont might be: Mature culture 100 g Flour 150 g Water 90 g After 12 hours, all looks good, the culture has domed nicely and is fully fragrant and ripe. Come summer, the kitchen is so much warmer and more humid that the culture would ripen in eight hours if we continue to use those proportions. We might therefore reduce the amount of mature culture in the build to 50 or 75 grams, or whatever is required so that the culture is mature in 12 hours. As bakers, we have to be very attentive. My good friend James MacGuire always brought his culture with him on vacation, and as he delightfully recounts, he could never stay in the same hotel twice because he had left such a floury mess, not to mention that weird smelling paste that was in the bin. He now has another method—one that I’ve not tried, but James is not just a great master, he is also completely committed to quality, and he wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work: he feeds his culture, maybe a bit stiffer than usual, and then after an hour refrigerates it. It is, of course, unripe at this stage, which means there is a nutrient supply available during the refrigeration phase. I’m sure there are other strategies for long term storage, but there is one important consideration regardless of the method used: once you’ve returned home, give the culture a couple of days at room temperature with two feedings daily to reinvigorate it." Jeff will monitor the comments to this post, so if you have any questions, please feel free to add your grain of salt as we say in French. Thank you, Jeff!


  1. I don't have a rye starter, but I have a both a liquid and a stiff white starter that I use just once a week on average.

    I regularly feed my starters and refrigerate them BEFORE ripening. They continue to metabolize in the fridge(albeit at a much slower rate), and this ensures there is plenty of food for them during the week. There are plenty of bubbles, not much appreciable rise, and I never find hooch on top of the starters when I take them out of the cold storage.

    Usually on Friday evenings I take them out of the fridge and let them ripen fully on the counter, then feed before I go to bed. In the morning I have happy, healthy starters to begin my weekend baking.

  2. Timely to say the least! My rye levain was doing well for a while till I got busy at work and neglected a days feed, it had hit it's peak and I re-fed it, and it looks, dead? No movement save for some bubbles under the crock I have it in!
    I may start a new one after the hectic time at work, and will definitely keep a steady look at your future posts, as well as looking back at previous ones too. Your information has helped my baking of late, consider all my kvectching at my dismal looking loaves from past bakes and now my wife is even enjoying my hand made loaves!

    Merci MC

  3. Hi MC,

    Thanks for asking Jeffrey about maintaining a rye starter. Now the other half of creating/maintaining a rye starter has been answered. I guess I will have to try and take a German Bread baking class with Jeffrey to smell his starter in order to know how it is suppose to smell like. Again...many thanks!

  4. I enjoyed reading your post. Although, I am one of those people who bake once a week whole grain sourdough bread. I feed my starter every time after I took some out to bake with. After feeding I let it well ferment, sometimes over night and put it into the fridge until next time. Feeding it once a week is a must for me / or for my starter :)
    Carl, what German Bread baking classes with Jeffrey are you talking about?
    I am from Germany and bake with German recipes. I actually teach bread baking classes, online also. If you want to see the pictures of the bread I am baking check out my website http://wheatandsourdough.com / this is not an add. If you have some questions about baking artisan bread, I am happy to try to answer them.

  5. Linda,

    I am referring to Jeffrey Hamelman's Advance Bread Baking class at King Arthur's Baking Education Center in Vermont. His specialty (from what I have read, seen, and heard) is German breads.

  6. MC

    This is a fantastic post!!! Thank you soooo... much for sharing with us Jeffrey Hamelman's comments.
    Would you say his comment on maintaining a white starter would be the same?


  7. Shiao-Ping, for some reason, Jeff was unable to post his reply. So he asked me to do it for him. Here it is:
    "You can surely manage a white culture in the same way as the rye. Some few things might be slightly different, but the principles remain the same. For example, if one person is maintaining a stiff white culture and another person a liquid culture, there will be obvious differences in the weight of the water in each build. But the following principles always apply:
    Let’s assume you want the culture to ripen in 16 hours. The tools at your disposal to manage the ripening are:

    1. percentage of mature culture used in the build;
    2. temperature of the ingredients used in the build;
    3. temperature of the environment in which the build is ripening

    Manipulating these three factors as the seasons come and go allow us to fairly consistently keep our culture in the state we need it to be in, so it is ready for the final dough mix when we are ready to do the mix. And—let’s not get upset by that word “manipulate.” Yes, it does have a bad reputation, and rightfully so oftentimes, but it’s a good word—it comes from the Greek “manos”—hands. Ah, the hands of a baker . . ."

  8. MC
    Thanks a lot for the post! As far as I see there was "the 1st part of the story" - creating a rye starter. Would you please give me a link?
    Thanks in advance!

  9. Hello Anonymous, I am not sure what you are referring to. Maybe Carl's comment? The first part of the story is actually to be found in Jeffrey Hamelman's book, Bread, in the chapter about creating a rye starter.

    1. MC,
      yes, you are quite right about Carl's comment and thanks for the answer!
      Also I'd like to ask you if I can translate your story The Mill on the Rémy into Belarusian and place on my LJ blog with ref. to you?

  10. Hello Alies, sure, you can translate the story. Thank you for asking! Please send me the link when you are done, it'll be exciting to see it in another language. Feel free to use the pictures as well as long as they remained labeled as Farine and are credited back to my blog. Good luck!



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